“Effective leadership is putting first things first,” insisted Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “What you do has far greater impact than what you say.”
About 20 years ago, a group of teachers, youth ministers, coaches, and I wanted to empower teens with collaborative leadership skills. There were plenty of models that provided teens with leadership training, but we lacked a model that equipped organizations with sustainable tools that allowed teens to use their leadership skills.
I was on a mission to figure out how to empower adults with tools they needed to encourage youth to be leaders without controlling or blocking their efforts.
Our leadership team hosted an annual Christian Leadership Institute (CLI) camp for teens. We invited youth throughout the Midwest to learn leadership tools and practice the skills in small group settings. Throughout the course of the week, teens learned how to:
Though I presented a session on communication during the week-long training, my primary role was to be a mentor to a small group of teens. The CLI youth teams used collaborative skills of planning and consensus to make decisions to complete leadership projects.
The roles of CLI mentors were less well-defined. We were instructed not to interfere with youth team planning. We were to be encouraging chaperones. Whenever I chimed in to ask a question during the teens’ discussions, they snapped, “It’s our role to do the planning.”
And they were right. Their role was to plan. My role as an adult mentor? I wasn’t so sure.
If adults do not have clearly defined roles when working with youth leadership teams, they will define the roles for themselves. Some adults become dictators; forcing their own agenda throughout the youth planning process. Some adults act like juvenile delinquents; often causing more disruptive discipline problems than the kids. It is not the fault of the adults when they act out like tyrants or class clowns – it’s a program issue that lacks clear role definition for participating adults.
One day, I figured out my role with the youth leadership team while they argued about a project decision. Three of the teens shouted at one another as they defended their opinions about the direction of the project. The others shut down and refused to participate in the discussion.
“Let’s go back to our group norms,” I said. “What can we do to think win-win?”
“No disrespect intended, Julie, but you’re not supposed to tell us what to do,” interrupted Elizabeth. “It’s our job to plan.”
“They told us you’re not supposed to talk because you’re not a member of our group,” Andy added.
I decided it was time to add a rule of my own to the small group planning process.
“All of us in this room have very important roles on this leadership team,” I answered. “Your role is to plan.”
“Yes!” they agreed. “Our role is to plan.”
“I am a member of our leadership team, too, but my role is different,” I continued. “Your role is to plan. My role is to ensure we use the tools of consensus and I will call you on it every time.”
The room got very quiet. Then it exploded with new energy.
Their roles were clear. My role was clear. I wasn’t the dictator. There was no need for me to withdraw from the planning. I didn’t try to be their friend. I was their adult mentor. In this role, the teens felt comfortable to focus on planning. They became more committed to their norms and agreements to use their communication tools. They knew I would draw them back to the consensus planning process – not by interrupting their planning, but by asking questions that were firmly rooted in Sean Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens:
Most of the teens on our senior high planning team were not the most popular teens at their schools. Unlike many high school councils and honors, the teens did not vote on members to represent them on our planning team. I selected the members of our first youth team because each one of them possessed different leadership skills. They were grateful I recognized their leadership potential.
Elizabeth understood how to rally a team into action. Terrill was a wonderful listener. James had an innate ability to sum up important highlights of a conversation. Katie kept us on task. Andy was a tremendous small group facilitator. Our leadership team needed the gifts of every member to be a strong collective whole.
In the years that followed, the teens acknowledged and celebrated leadership gifts in one another. They created projects and committees that invited all teens in our community to share their individual leadership gifts. They became members of the youth leadership training team. Our leadership training processes became a model many schools, churches, and community organizations wanted to emulate.
It is exciting when teens empowered with leadership skills are invited to represent their peers on church, school, and community leadership teams with adults. However, young leaders often ask me, “How come we have to follow the rules of consensus and collaboration and the adults don’t have to?”
“Because you have leadership skills and training,” I answered. “Now, go and be role models.”
Every teen needs someone to see their leadership potential. Sean Covey said, “Ask any successful person and most will tell you that they had a person who believed in them.”
When we demonstrate respect for our youth through our words, actions, and invitation into full involvement in the life of our communities, they will come – and they will stay. And they will bring their friends. Their friends will bring their parents and curious adults. That’s how organizations grow.
That’s how youth leaders become community leaders, national heroes, and role models.
P.S. Elizabeth is now Director of Youth & Adult Formation at a church. Andy is a special education teacher. Now they’re preparing the next generation of youth leaders.
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